Types of Butterflies: Pictures and Identification Tips

Both formal and informal approaches apply when anyone explains the types of butterflies native to the world’s fields, forests and residential areas. Informally, butterfly species present themselves as the colorful, winged insects associated with flowers and warm, sunny days.

Check out the video clips covering a variety of butterflies found from coast to coast across the United States.

Feeling refreshed? Now back to the more formal butterfly discussions.

At a young age most people learn that butterflies and moths belong to the larger Lepidoptera order.

Families follow orders and the butterfly families often get organized based on a set of shared physical characteristics such as wing color or shape.

The global butterfly population currently consists of six families, with experts identifying anywhere between fifteen to nineteen thousand different species. Butterfly diversity reaches its high in the area from Mexico to the southern tip of South America. That’s lots of different types of butterflies.

The butterfly identification guide provides pictures and descriptions of most types of butterflies from each family to help answer some basic butterfly identification questions.

It might be helpful to use it in conjunction with the state butterfly guides. They provides lists of butterflies along with pictures of representative species of butterflies from each of the families.

Types of Butterflies: Brush-footed

The brush-footed butterflies (Nymphalidae) constitute the largest butterfly family, accounting for approximately thirty percent of all North American butterfly species. Formally divided into eleven subfamilies, their common names such as admirals, fritillaries, checkerspots, ladies, crescents, commas and tortoiseshells ring a familiar note for most butterfly enthusiasts.

With so many types of butterflies in the family, butterfly identification becomes a bit complex. Identifying them often starts by noticing the orange wing color. From wing color, the identification process proceeds by closely examining the wing patterns necessary for proper identification. Monarch Butterflies, Queens and Soldiers, for example, similar looking species, can be distinguished from each other by their wing patterns.

The picturess provide initial identification help. If the butterfly in question shares common wing pattern, click on the link and see all the different species in the genus. associated with all the brushfoot butterfly subfamilies.

Lycaenidae: Gossamer-wing Butterflies

picture of a Mariposa Copper butterfly, part of the types of butterflies section

Three types of butterflies fit into the Gossamer-wing butterfly category.

Generally small in size, they initially get grouped according to both color and wing appendages. As the buttons to the left suggest they go by the common names, coppers and hairstreaks.

Blue butterflies, for example, share the physical characteristic of males having blue wings. Wing color of females differs from blue to brown, depending on the species.

Often identification of blue butterflies begins with a close examination of the patterns present on the underside of the wings. Click on the blue butterflies link to view a video that shows a handful of blue butterfly species with the wings folded, highlighting those patterns.

The thin, tail looking appendage on the bottom of hairstreak butterfly wings, on the other hand, usually serves as the physical characteristic uniting that subfamily. Of course, the tail looking appendage for hairstreaks represents one rule of thumb. The colorful green hairstreak butterfly in the video Copper butterflies tend to have brown to copper shaded wings.

Pieridae: Whites and Sulphur Butterflies

picture of a group of yellow butterflies puddling, part of the types of butterflies section

The white and sulphur (yellow) butterflies easily spotted in the field, initially get identified and sorted into the family on account of their wing color.

One of the most common white butterflies present in North American yards and gardens, the Cabbage White butterfly, raises young that feed on garden vegetables.

Common names for Pieridae species include marbles, orangetips, yellows and dogfaces. The approximately seventy documented species makes it one of the smaller butterfly families in terms of species diversity.


picture of a Brown-banded Skipper butterfly

The skippers (family Hesperiidae), the small brownish butterflies, also get characterized by their relatively large eyes and closed wings at rest. Spreadwing skippers expand on that starting point. Still small and often with brown color wings, they tend to rest with wings open.

Sometimes mistaken for moths, their clubbed antennae help identify it as a butterfly. Common names for Hesperiidae species include longtails, flashers, cloudywings, flats, sootywings, duskywings and skipperlings.

Swallowtail Butterflies

picture of a Pail Swallowtail butterfly

Swallowtail butterflies can often be recognized by their larger than average size and the presences of extended appendages (tails) at the bottom of their wings.

Many, but not all swallowtail butterflies have black or yellow patterned wings. Species diversity reaches it highest in the South.


picture of a Red-bordered metalmark butterfly

Because the Riodinidae family species, commonly called mmetalmarks, are primarily a tropical family, many butterfly fans tends to forget they exist. However, a small group of species populate areas along southern North America, especially the Southwest.

What do butterflies eat?

picture of a Canadian tiger swallowtails puddling, part of the types of butterflies series
The question of the butterfly diet is very popular, and relatively simple to answer. In brief, most butterflies do not eat anything, although they do drink liquids.

While butterflies do not eat in the traditional sense, they have a proboscis, or long tube in their mouth that acts like a straw for drinking. Their tastes tend to be eclectic, with many opting to perch on flowers, manure piles and fruit gathering different nutrients.

Another common butterfly behavior called puddling refers to butterflies that congregate in shallow water or wet areas to grab a drink on a warm sunny day. The top picture highlights some puddling butterflies.

Butterfly photographers take note of potential butterfly puddling areas such as water patches in ditches on the side of the road because they are great places to find a variety of butterfly species.

As a general rule of thumb for understanding butterfly dietary practices, there are always exceptions to the butterflies do not eat rule. Dr. Paul A. Opler of the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, says,

Longwing butterflies such as the Zebra butterfly are able to collect pollen from certain flowers with their proboscis and to break it down and absorb amino acids (proteins) which contribute to the ability to survive, mate and lay eggs for long periods (6 months or so). With their short proboscis (tongue) the adults of Harvester butterflies can actually pierce the bodies of woolly aphids and drink their fluids–this would be the only bugs that adult butterflies eat. The caterpillar of almost all butterflies eat various parts of plants. Each species may specialize of only a few kinds of plants or plant parts

How did butterflies get their name?

Butterfly enthusiasts across the United States recognize many species, such as the Zebra Swallowtail, Texan Crescent and Common Buckeye, by their English names rather than their scientific names. How did butterflies get those names, and, who names them?

The short answer to the first part of the question is butterfly marketing. Butterflies get their common names as part of a butterfly promotion effort. In 1874, one of the leading entomologists of the day, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, proposed a system for naming butterflies that would appeal to the average American.

He said,

In our own country all the common birds and flowers have also received such names, and it is my belief that the study of butterflies would be far more popular, if they also had common names.

Since 1874, approximately 750 different butterfly species have been given common names, based primarily on the butterfly’s physical characteristics or geographical location. As the number of still to be discovered butterfly species decreases, the butterfly naming competition heats up.

In 2007, The University of Florida held an auction for the rights to name a newly discovered owl butterfly species. A winning bid of $40,800, was received to name the butterfly the Minerva owl butterfly, in memory of Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller of Ohio. The proceeds of the auction help fund continued research about butterfly species in Mexico.